"I would have liked more opportunities and I would have liked to have finished my studies," says Nara Raiis, a 24-year-old from Madrid. She has been out of a job for two-and-a-half years, although she has never stopped looking. Nara dropped out of school as a teen due to her "family's economic situation," and she's aware that a high school diploma alone is not going to help her in her job search. She would like to enroll in vocational education but it's difficult because she still needs to work.
"It's pathetic the way they don't make it easy for people who want to improve themselves," she complains.
Close to 24 percent of young Spaniards between 15 and 29 are neither studying nor working. This is the highest figure in Europe and nearly eight points above the average for developed countries (15.8 percent), according to 2010 data published in the OECD's Education at a Glance 2012 report. The figure grew seven points between 2008 and 2010.
These roughly 1.9 million youngsters (who are popularly referred to in Spain as ninis , as in ni estudia ni trabaja or "neither works nor studies"), represent an accumulation of faults in industry and education. On the one hand, Spanish industry has been greatly dependent on services and construction in the last decade, with few positions for university graduates but lots for unskilled workers. On the other, the education system was unable to retain a significant percentage of students during boom times (the dropout rate was around 30 percent in the last decade, although it went down to 26.5 percent in 2011).
I've studied, I've been to lots of interviews - it's not for want of trying"
Now that those youngsters are lining up at unemployment offices, schools are incapable of luring them back to study.
"Right now, accessing the labor market is really hard, and going back to school is not easy either, because those who dropped out do not wish to go back, or because continuing education programs are not that relevant," says Alberto Vaquero, a professor at Vigo University.
Adult education centers are overflowing in many parts of Spain and vocational school programs are working to capacity: demand grew by 127,000 students in the last three school years and "around 80,000 youngsters are left without a spot each year," says José Campos, head of the education department of the CCOO labor union.
And with an overall jobless rate of 25 percent (over 50 percent among young Spaniards), there are also lots of college graduates among the ninis . Laura B. is 25. A year ago she graduated in advertising and PR. Since then all she has found are jobs as a store clerk and at a public relations agency that wanted to pay her with "clothes from their events and trips to the hairdresser."
Laura wants to get a master's degree in creative advertising, but right now she gets no subsidies of any kind because she hasn't worked long enough to be eligible. So she eventually had to leave Madrid and move back in with her parents in Cáceres. But Laura does not consider herself a nini , at least not the kind that people often imagine to be little more than indolent idlers. "I've studied, I've been to lots of interviews and I've worked at it. If I'm a nini , it's not for want of trying."
The director general of the OECD has asked governments not to cut back on education spending in the crisis. The government holds that Spain spent nearly 8,000 euros per student in 2009, well above the OECD and EU averages (around 6,500 euros). Therefore, the cuts to education spending that began in 2010 and will mean 10 to 11 billion euros less in 2015 will not drag Spain down on the charts, says Montserrat Gomendio, secretary of state for education. The education unions, however, dismiss Gomendio's argument and note that public schools have already been downsized by around 80,000 teachers.